PARIS — When prexy Gilles Jacob restructured the Cannes Film Festival management last year, all eyes were on the new artistic director, Thierry Fremaux.
Meanwhile, Veronique Cayla was discreetly settling into her new office at the fest’s Paris HQ. Cayla, 51, had just been appointed the fest’s first managing director, forming with Jacob and Fremaux what the prexy dubbed his new management trio.
Lots of festgoers got to meet the new business brains behind the festival for the first time on the red-carpeted steps of the Palais last year.
“I’ve climbed the steps myself many times, but it doesn’t compare with standing at the top watching the excitement or anxiety on the faces of so many people as they come toward you,” recalls Cayla. “It sends shivers down your spine.”
In an interview with Variety, the French film industry veteran and mother of two teenagers reveals that landing the job was a remarkable second chance. Jacob had approached her two years earlier about joining the organization — a dream offer for someone who has been to Cannes almost every year since her first trip to the Croisette as a student in 1973. But she had just been appointed a member of the Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel, France’s broadcasting authority.
“It was awful having to turn the festival down, but I had no choice,” remembers Cayla, her petite frame stylish in a tweed pants suit. “It was impossible for me to just turn around and say ciao to the CSA.”
Jacob went on to appoint Olivier Barrot as his dauphin but within months the two had a falling out. Cayla was thrilled when Jacob called her again, and proposed a three-way meeting with Fremaux. They hit it off instantly, says Cayla, thanks in part to their complementary backgrounds.
“We aren’t interchangeable. Thierry’s obviously extremely knowledgeable about film but at the Institut Lumiere (the film archive he runs in Lyons), he also has a management role,” she says.
“As for me, I’m not a professional cinephile like Thierry but I’ve always had jobs that incorporated artistic responsibility, and so we can both appreciate what the other does.”
Cayla spent the 1970s in the upper echelons of French administrations as an adviser to successive culture ministers. She got to know the Gallic film industry while helping to set up French webs’ film production subsidiaries, a political response to falling cinema attendance in France.
“TV and film back then were two separate worlds. We brought them together,” she says.
Like lots of tenureless appointees in the ancien regime, Cayla — despite a bulging Rolodex — found herself jobless when socialist President Francois Mitterrand came to power in 1981. But shortly afterwards, she was tapped by Paris’ City Hall to help create an audiovisual archive for the French capital — a fantastic adventure that culminated six years later in the opening of the much lauded Videotheque de Paris, today the Forum des Images.
A decade after first embarking on the Videotheque project, Cayla resigned to join Marin Karmitz’s MK2, where, as managing director, she became familiar with all aspects of the biz from production, distribution and catalog management to exhibition.
She has fond memories of working with Claude Chabrol; Abbas Kiarostami, whom she and Karmitz spent five years wooing; and Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose “Blue,” “White and “Red” trilogy was produced by Karmitz.
“An auteur who works with MK2 is cosseted from the first line of his scenario right through to the choice of publicity posters. It is great craftsmanship in the service of art,” says Cayla.
But by 1999, the relationship between Karmitz and Cayla had soured — “we were no longer mentor-pupil and I think it didn’t suit Marin” — and she ankled the company.
In the time she’s been with Cannes Film Festival, Cayla has shown that she’s not merely content with a dry management role, even if running the $16.5 million-a-year event is heavy on administration. “Thierry is the only one who sees all the films — it’s an 18-hour-a-day job — but there are no turf problems and when he has doubts about a film, he comes to me or Gilles and we discuss it,” she says.
Opines Cayla: “Cinema only succeeds when the artistic and industrial dimensions interconnect and I’m convinced it’s the same for the festival. When you are trying to persuade a director to come to Cannes, there are artistic arguments and there are plain old material arguments to do with hotels and organization that are almost as important — so it has to be team effort.”
Cayla also has initiated a series of measures to make the festival less elitist, such as free open-air screenings and concerts.
“We don’t have room to allow the public into the Palais, but they mustn’t feel left out,” she says.
She will doubtless find other ways of making her mark on the festival. “In most jobs one can never take stock,” Cayla observes. “What is wonderful about this one is that for six months of the year you are working frantically but for the other six you have the luxury of time to sit back and think about ways of doing it better.”